Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life
A fascinating poetic journey into the mind and heart of a musical genius.
‘She tells the great composer’s life story more profoundly than most biographies: her imagery and imagination took me deeper into Beethoven than many I’ve read.'
‘As she perceives it, Beethoven early on drifted into states that prefigured how deafness would isolate him. She suggests that his isolating deafness contributed to his greatness. “What we forget makes us who we are.” Perhaps for Beethoven that eventually included the actual sound of music. “Does being deaf break the chains?”
‘Her poems are informed by her lifelong immersion in music. She helpfully includes 30 pages of short biographical bits linked to the poems Even these entries have poetic elegance.’ - New York Times
"An approach to Beethoven by way of precisely figured emotion. Two lives drawn beneath the lens, the composer's and her own, interacting in ways that can be bold and, finally, breathtaking. On the Eroica, she is spectacular. The composer is "fire-dust, gold-flight /winching upwards into pure light" as he drives "forward into a new-world dawn /thrilling with dissonance, calling up wild-steel angels" - Paul Griffiths, Times Literary Supplement
‘Absolutely gorgeous poems, beautifully written, full of wonderful imagery. She has a marvellous way of surprising you with hindsight, atmosphere and context. I think it’s an absolute masterpiece, I love it to pieces.’ - Jessica Duchen, novelist and music critic, Best Books on Beethoven
‘Wonderful… Ruth Padel writes with true passion. Her love for, and understanding of, the man and his music shine through each poem.’ - Steven Isserlis, cellist
‘With precision, heart-breaking beauty and lyric insight, Ruth Padel performs a miracle: he comes alive before us, the son of a drunk who became a genius – and here we are, following Padel’s own genius for composing the music of a story: generous, painful, tender, gorgeously lyrical.’ - Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic
‘Ruth Padel’s poems capture that uncontainable spirit to an astounding degree, and preserve the primal shock of our first hearing.’ - Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker
BEETHOVEN VARIATIONS is a personal voyage through the life and legend of one of our greatest composers, retraces his steps through Europe, tracing his private thoughts through letters, diaries, and the conversation books he used as he went deaf. Beethoven as a battered four-year-old weeping at the clavier; the young pianist, agonised by encroaching deafness; the passionate heartbroken lover, the clumsy eccentric making coffee with exactly sixty beans, the isolated artist who ends even his most harrowing works on a note of hope.
Padel’s quest for Beethoven takes her to the heart of Europe and back to her own musical childhood. Her great-grandfather studied in Leipzig with Moscheles, a pupil of Beethoven, became a concert pianist, and migrated to Britain. Her parents met making music and Ruth grew up playing viola, Beethoven’s instrument as a child. This book grew from her collaboration with the Endellion String Quartet: an intimate response to Beethoven's music, a lyrical exploration of the power of music in all our lives.
In July 2020, Ruth recorded poems on Beethoven’s life for Bangalore International Centre, illustrated by playing and conversation from musicians.